Lurid atmosphere as Ukrainians vote on EU future
A kidnapping on the streets of Kiev, allegations the President is a peeping Tom and that a top opposition figure ordered a gangland murder - Ukraine goes to the polls this weekend in a weird climate which counts for normality in the EU-aspirant nation.
Ballot boxes will open at 8am local time on Sunday (28 October) and close at 8pm, with exit polls expected shortly afterward.
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The three main parties competing for the 450-seat parliament are President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of the Regions, world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko's Udar and the United Opposition bloc led (from behind bars) by former PM Yulia Tymoshenko and by career politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Voters are sick of both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko, but Klitschko - who is running on an anti-corruption ticket - is gaining popularity.
According to polls, the Party of Regions will get 20 to 25 percent, while Udar and the United Opposition will get 15 to 20 percent each.
The populist Communist party might get 10 percent. The Ukraine-Forward party, led by former Tymoshenko ally Natalia Korolevska and football hero Andriy Shevchenko, and the far-right Svoboda party, might each get the 5 percent they need to make it into parliament.
Several hundred "independent" candidates are also running.
But these are mostly local businessmen who get votes by handing out food or bicycles and who later back whichever party wins in order to protect their financial interests.
At stake is the future of Ukrainian democracy and rule of law, as well as its economic welfare and independence from Russia.
Analysts - such as US-based academics Alexander Motyl and Rajan Menon - say that if Yanukovych's party gets a constitutional majority (300 seats) in parliament, it will use it to reappoint him as President in 2015 despite his unpopularity.
Yanukovych has used his last two and a half years in power to jail political opponents and to amass a fortune for himself and family members.
He has also overseen a near-collapse in EU-Ukraine relations.
The signature of an EU trade and political association agreement - seen as the only alternative to Ukraine joining a Russia-dominated customs union - is on hold and ratification is a dim prospect.
With almost 4,000 international monitors in Ukraine this weekend, including 15 MEPs, mass-scale voting fraud is unlikely.
But for some, such as German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, the election is a priori unfair because Tymoshenko cannot run.
For others, such as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US secretary of state Hilary Clinton, the vote lacks credibility for other reasons.
"We are concerned about reports of the use of administrative resources to favor ruling party candidates and the difficulties several media outlets face. Similarly, we are concerned about the continuation of the practice of the Central Election Commission holding closed pre-session meetings and the lack of representation of some political parties on district and precinct election commissions. Distribution of material or financial benefits to voters is another issue that should be investigated and halted," they said in an op-ed in the New York Times this week.
Meanwhile, in a country which is used to watching its MPs punch each other and throw chairs at debates in parliament, there is little that can cause surprise.
But the run-up to the vote has seen an outbreak of fresh oddities in any case.
On 17 October, Tymoshenko accused Yanukovych of getting sexual thrills by watching secret CCTV footage of her on the toilet while in prison. "What do you do with these films? Do you watch them alone or in cheerful company with friends?" she said in an open letter.
On 24 October, Ukrainian police detained Mykola Melnychenko, a former top-level bodyguard, who came back to Ukraine claiming he has evidence that Tymoshenko ordered the contract killing of a businessman in 1996.
In the latest incident, a Russian opposition activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, who came to Ukraine to seek asylum, vanished to reappear in custody in Moscow saying that he was snatched by Russian intelligence and tortured.
"The special services of a foreign state are operating on Ukraine's territory," Tymoshenko's ally, Yatsenyuk, said, seizing the opportunity to paint Yanukovych as a Kremlin stooge.